IndyConnect has Limited Vision

Public investment in transportation infrastructure is what Indianapolis is all about, and is still known as the “Crossroads of America” because of it.  The investment in transportation infrastructure started early with the canals, picked up speed with rail (including the first ever Union Station), and continued when Indy became a key part of the National Road, our first federal highway.  More recently the best new airport terminal in the US was opened.

We have our intercity transportation and freight pretty well figured out, but now it’s time to get our local transit in order.  Multi-modal solutions give people options about where and how to live, and make cities more resilient to the challenges of the future.  But we seem to have prioritized low density auto-oriented growth for so long that we have lost our urban identity.  We’re not seen as the crossroads of America anymore, we’re just another decaying donut.

For those of us who were expecting big things from IndyConnect, the unveiled plan has been met with strong debate.  A program that was sold to the community as a vision for the future is really just a mirror showing us as we already exist – a capital city afraid of its collaborative, urban origins and rapidly trying to reinvent itself as the sprawling, low-cost leader of the midwest.

Where will Indy rank on this list in 30 years?

IndyConnect is a chance to come together as a regional community and decide our destiny.  Unfortunately, the plan currently up for review is not very inspiring.  The controversial decision to switch out LRT for buses appears to be political rather than economic, as previous studies and case studies have shown the regional benefits would easily justify the costs.  I question the decision to use BRT, because the sponsors threw away the support of the biggest pool of users to get… well let’s just say I don’t see any Tea Partiers jumping on board with this plan because of its lower cost.

But even if the LRT option had survived, would that have been enough to call this plan a “vision”?  Not at all.  When you look at the mass transit portion, the plan only recommends purchase of some new vehicles, polishing up some old train hardware, and striping some roads.  It’s a superficial marketing brochure that won’t significantly address livability in Indianapolis.  We can’t solve this problem by throwing money at it, we’re gonna have to dig deeper.  Policy reform has to be front and center, and that debate is much more important than whether or not we use light rail, commuter rail, or bus rapid transit.

It's not the bus or LRT that appeals to people, its the urban attitude

If IndyConnect really wants to lay the groundwork for a city that can use transit, then we need to decide to stop exclusively designing our cities for cars.  Buses are not the building block of a transit system, the pedestrian is.  A transformative vision of Indianapolis is needed now, so here is a twelve step plan to make Indianapolis a haven for transit before a single track is ever laid:

  1. Pedestrianize – Begin and end ALL planning from the perspective of a pedestrian (ALL planning! – transportation, land use, urban design, civic assets)
  2. Don’t fool yourself – buses will never capture mode share from cars, and rail doesn’t help much either unless there is an incentive to use it
  3. Induced demand is real – accept vehicular congestion, because you can’t build your way out of it
  4. Laser, not shotgun – don’t try to accommodate the entire region with transit, because transit is expensive and should only serve areas designed for it like streetcar suburbs, old rail stops, and centralized corridors
  5. No Robert Moses needed – accept that communities are more important than the transportation solutions running through them
  6. Be unselfish – design the transportation system for the next generation and the problems they will face
  7. Create value – don’t be afraid to use rail based transit to create special areas in the city, but beware of doing the same in suburbs because that will empty the city (population follows public investment) into areas that don’t want and can’t accommodate the extra load on their limited services
  8. Be inclusive – integrate pedestrians and bicyclists into the traffic system rather than forcing them onto recreational pathways
  9. Respect the car – well behaved cars and drivers deserve a place in the city, car-free zones are a bad idea and represent a failure of integration
  10. Reward density – land use and transit should support “density done right” because a walkable urban environment produces happy, socially wealthy individuals
  11. Slow it down – convert urban highways to slower streets, because if the traffic is too fast for sidewalk cafes, merging bicycle traffic, and people crossing the street then you are doing it wrong
  12. Restore the Cityscape – accept that our city was better before the interstates arrived, and it will be better when they are removed

Indianapolis as a city was never perfect, but it was never more imperfect than the day we decided that cars could solve all of our problems.  We purposefully excluded anyone who can’t drive or afford a car from participating in civic life, killed off small businesses, and enslaved future generations to volatile energy costs.

Now we are about to sell off our ability to control parking supply and pricing, our most important urban development tool, and yet our leaders still fail to realize how that is related to transportation in the city.  There are a hundred other issues that we hammer all the time on this website but haven’t been addressed yet, including: curb radii, tree canopies, excess lane widths, unnecessary one-way streets, missing sidewalks, urban design regulatory problems, and privatization of the public realm.

How will BRT, LRT, or Commuter Rail solve these issues?  They can’t.  In reality, a lot of people have problems walking to the bus stop because the city is so impermeable to pedestrians.  The number of new pedestrian bridges going in downtown is a great indicator that we still haven’t solved the walkability issue in our most important places.

The debate over IndyConnect should be a debate over walkability and the role of the pedestrian.  Policy reform must be at the top of the agenda.  Think education and consensus building rather than bus routes and transit maps.  I support IndyConnect.  This is what progress looks like.  But IndyConnect must explicitly address walkability or it will fail.

Comments 23

  • I think I’ve already said my piece on the fact that you’re underselling BRT, so I’ll leave that for other threads.
    I think your “twelve-step plan” is right on pretty much every point. The city and MPO needs to be encouraging density as much as possible.
    However, I do have some objection to the last point. Whether or not the city was better before they were put in downtown (and I’m assuming that you’re referring exclusively downtown — advocating removal of 465 isn’t even worth talking about), removing them at this point (or even talking about removing them right now) is a complete political non-starter. And as much as you would denigrate the political process, there are some things that just aren’t feasible right now.

  • Thanks for the comment. I know that any discussion of downtown freeway removal would seem silly right now, a lot can happen in 30 years. Citizens might decide they would rather have a more appropriate option like a parkway or boulevard. In any case, I’m not afraid to have the vision.

  • How about invest in plans bold enough to mix with our existing infrastructure. Let’s celebrate the fact that we can coexist with the car culture we live in…and always will need to for a long time. There just needs to be more incentives for unique development that focuses on, like you say, community walkability. Indy Connect needed to promote–along with the early phase expanded bus service–a ‘significant’ pilot project (College Avenue LRT) for the city NOW to help educate the public and showcase what potential transformation Indianapolis can experience in a 5 year period on a smaller scale. Instead, TAX MINDED Central Indiana residents can only plan for a 20 year fix, after which we realize that plan becomes outdated. All of this tax money thrown away in favor for expanding our suburban nature.

  • Well, I can tell you with some of the suggestions on here, this plan is DOA, unless Marion County can fund the entire $1+ billion dollar price tag itself. I will give you my comments, as I am one of those horrible suburbanites who may end up having a vote when it comes to this plan. A little background: I live 1/4th of a mile outside the Marion Co. line in Hancock County. I work in downtown Indy. My work day rotates, and my hours make it so that I miss the rush hour commutes in the morning and afternoon. Our household income is $65K/year, more if I work any OT. We have lived a pretty frugal life, and I am very protective of my income, be it discretionary spending, or legal confiscation from some form of government.
    As this plan stands now, I see it as nothing more than a pork project to once again make a select few people very wealthy. Many more folks will have jobs (building, designing, etc.), but the bulk of the money will hit the bank accounts of a select few. While I do think there is a slight traffic problem, it is only a problem Mon-Fri during the rush hours. I would also add that even on Friday, traffic is considerably lighter, likely due to folks taking Friday off for various reasons. Anyways, there are many more things that could be done to reduce traffic congestion on our highways during this time:
    #1: Ask downtown businesses if they could have it so more workers come to work around 7:30, or not have to be at work until 9:30-10AM.
    #2: When dealing with rush hour congestion, I believe a very high frequency bus system from the suburbs to downtown is the key. I would be more likely to pay a little tax (.50/month-$1.00/month) even if I didn’t benefit from this. My suggestion is simple: You initially stage eight nice buses at places like Greenwood Mall, Washington Sq. Mall, 116th-I-69, Clay Terrence, etc.. First bus leaves for downtown at 7AM, and every 15 mins., another bus leaves for downtown. This occurs until the last bus leaves at 9AM.

    To me, #2 would be a good thing to at least try before dumping another billion dollars into road building, limited use rail lines, etc.. It could be quickly tuned to fix problems (maybe have two buses leave at 7:30, and skip the 7:45 bus, add another bus, etc.).

    The problem I see is that there are a lot of urban cheerleaders who want to build grand, yet they won’t want to fork over $50/month out of their own pockets. So instead they want to spread the hurt around and take money from people who will likely never see a benefit from this system. Yes, I understand all the benefits folks claim will come: Nicer city, more business, blah blah blah. I have heard it all before. As it stands now, with taxpayers having built four sports arenas and a massive convention hall, every Fortune 500 company should have their HQs located in Indy. They don’t, which pretty much blows the ‘If you build it, they will come” argument out of the water.

    This article pretty much slams suburbanites, and I’m not sure why you would do that if you want their help financially in this. There is nothing wrong with millions of people living over a very wide area. There is no moral righteousness in saying that folks should be crammed into small areas. I live living on one acre, having a 20 min. ride to downtown Indy. I don’t like constantly hearing police and fire trucks, or having it appear like the sun is up 24/7 due to the city being all lit up.

    Personally, while I do want Indy to grow, I also want to be able to live a life, and feed any future kids I may have. I am dealing with tax grabs from all fronts: K-12, College-University, township government, county government, city gov., state gov., and federal government. Also, too many of these quasi government entities like the CIB and Indy Connect want in my wallet as well. I didn’t do without so I could turn around and pay this entity another $15/month, another entity $30/month, someone else $5/month. I want Indy to be the low cost leader, not some place where my old 1,300 sq. ft. home goes for $300K and the property taxes are $6,000 a year.

    I just can’t support this push for big government, bigger tax burdens, etc.. I don’t believe anything until I actually see it. You want me to pay $15/month to your entity, built it first, then maybe I will pay. This promise for future rail spurs aren’t worth anything. There won’t be any going back if you vote for the tax and 25 years down the road, the governing entity decides that New Palestine, McCordsville, Mooresville, Plainfield, etc. don’t need a rail spur, even if they are as the same density as what Fishers and Greenwood are. Folks also have to remember that property values won’t go up all over the metro area. That is a total lie. Those areas around the rails could see massive growth, thus pulling buyers away from all the other suburban areas. Why would I want to pay $12/month (it will be more, it almost always is) for a rush hour bus to serve my area, when Fishers and Greenwood get a fancy rail system?

    If the K-12 referendums were any indication, this thing is DOA. We are seeing a correction in terms of economy that was long over-due. As high wage factory jobs disappeared over the last three decades, home prices, and many other things, should have went down in costs. Instead, we had the availability of cheap debt, cheap gas, etc. allow for people to live like millionaires, when they were really only making $100K/year, if that. If my area does vote and passes this tax, I will reduce my donations to charity. If that still doesn’t make up for the loss, then mom and pop pizza and burger places that see my business a few times a month will start seeing me less. I refuse to take the kind of hit they are talking about for something that won’t benefit me.

    • Even though this article dealt almost exclusively with urban issues, the advice would make any neighborhood a better place to live. The ability to walk to nearby destinations provides a huge quality of life benefit that is measurable in economic, social, and environmental terms. A good transit system amplifies those benefits for a low cost. And yes, it would benefit everyone in the region.

    • J Doe:

      Frequent LRT (or even BRT) on Washington St. from Cumberland (Meijer parking lot) to Downtown would NOT benefit you? How exactly is that?

      Do you not realize that you currently benefit from two centuries of Marion County residents’ investment in roads, as well as current residents’ maintenance of those roads, while you pay not a single dime for them? (And that “cheap gas” enables your commuter lifestyle? Or that you only pay the CIB stadium tax when you eat out, something that used to be considered a luxury item?)

      Plus, you benefit daily from Indianapolis police and fire protection. And ambulance/emergency services (if you are hit by a bus crossing Meridian Street, will you have a Hancock County ambulance come pick you up and cart you to Greenfield’s hospital?).

      And in case you didn’t notice, during the “property tax revolt”, Indianapolis residents voted FOR a significant K-12 referendum.

      Frankly, I’d just as soon see this thing be funded by Marion County only. Then we could cut out the Fishers-Noblesville train and concentrate on a rail spine for our own transit network.

      • In fairness to the original commenter, he did reply to tell us that he pays more taxes than poor people living in the city and is offended at the prospect of “bailing out” citizens getting “socialist” stuff like reduced meal costs for school children. I deleted it because it was a mostly off-topic rant.

        • Hmm. Sorry for engaging someone given to off-topic rants. I suppose regular commenters already have read (and are tired of) my “case for taxing commuters” as it applies to roads, transit, and other municipal services, and it probably just zips right past those for whom it’s intended (like a suburban express train).

  • Freeway removal has been appropriate and successful in some instances. Not so for Indianapolis in the forseeable future. In the short-term Indianapolis should continue to “revise” the layout and design of urban interstate arteries as was done with the Market St. ramp removal. The new design was poor for pedestrians along Washington St. but should prove to be a win for Market St. long term and connecting downtown with the “near” near eastside.

    Another nearby opportunity for badly needed interstate redesign is along I-70 just south of downtown. With ramps cutting deep into the blocks north of it, the design and layout is so awful I am doubtful the area could ever become livable without a large scale redesign.

  • I don’t have a problem with walkable places: A retail/arts/etc. center, surrounded by housing that is within walking distance. What I do have a problem with is this idea that those areas must contain high rise living quarters, and should be confined to a certain area. It seems there is a push by urban cheerleaders to only push folks back into old cities…why? What is wrong with twenty mini-cities spread over a vast area (like Indy)? What is wrong with taking this approach and applying it to Greenfield, Carmel, Fishers, Greenwood, Plainfield, etc? Why does it always have to be stopping “sprawl” and forcing a lot of people to live in a very confined space?

    This is where I see another fail in this plan. Instead of the promise of future rail spurs, that should be built now. There is absolutely nothing wrong with building spurs to the suburbs now. To me, building these spurs in the sparsely populated counties could allow for specific zoning around where the line is, and any boarding stations will be. By actually showing the people where the line will be, could make for better growth in the burbs, with developers focusing walkable developments near the line and/or boarding stations. What I see happening is that like all pork projects this will be way over budget. If we have continued growth that we have seen for the last two decades, in 20 years, Plainfield, New Palestine, McCordsville, etc. will likely have the same look as Fishers. If they are serious about rail spurs to these areas in the future, they need to at least start buying the land now.

    • To answer your question “What is wrong with twenty mini-cities spread out over a vast area” would require me to write a book. Luckily, someone else already has. Please read “Suburban Nation” to find your answers.

      But I’ll do my best to answer some of your questions here. The people who advocate for changes to our current development patterns are only concerned about the health of our communities, both urban and suburban. They want to see our kids grow up in safe, rewarding places that can support them from birth through old age. They want streets where walking or riding a bike is not as dangerous as a Balkan minefield. They have no interest in forcing people to do anything. Few people want to stop sprawl, they only intend to stop subsidizing it. We want to see the free market work as it should, where pricing controls consumption of limited resources.

      Also, please understand that “high-density” and “high-rise” are different concepts. In fact, there are several historic neighborhoods in Indianapolis that are dense enough to support rail-based transit, and none of them contain high-rise buildings.

      Finally, extending rail to every city surrounding Indianapolis would be expensive. It’s not a bad idea, it just won’t be our first priority.

  • JD, the first thing that I would say about stopping sprawl is that it becomes INCREDIBLY inefficient to maintain them.

    For instance if you take an “old city” grid street pattern, you can say that it is easy to move from one street to the next and by extension it is much CHEAPER to maintain the same type of pattern. From a simple mobility point of view, there are many options to get to the same place efficiently, and maintaining these byways could be considered X

    Now, examine a suburban designed subdivision that has been developed within the past 50 years. To get the same amount of people in the X amount of byways I described above, would take an order of magnitude MORE land to do. The typical suburb consists of curving roads, larger yards, and by extension these additional roads, and less amounts of byways to travel to and fro, cost MORE MONEY to maintain.

    So when we complain about inefficient suburban form, this really cuts to the heart of what we are talking about. Subsidized suburban SPRAWL that costs a LOT more money to maintain.

    This Indyconnect plan, as you may have noticed, diverts 80% of the next 25 years worth of spending to those same suburban roads. So in affect what we are saying is that instead of those funds being used to help improve the regional core, which is lets face it, the single reason why the suburbs are strong, we are concluding that more suburban development will be subsidized.

    There are those who would also make a claim that by the large amount of jobs that are located in downtown Indy, and who are employing lots of suburban commuters, are sucking Marion County tax payers money away. As it currently stands, if you live in Hamilton County, you are not paying local tax dollars to Marion County if you work there. In affect, those of us living here, are paying for the upkeep and expansion of the roads that suburban residents drive on, yet never pay for.

  • Thanks for all of you who have simply spelled out how dysfunctional (socially and economically) and inefficient suburban systems are. And I will always stand by my pessimistic feelings about the revised INDY CONNECT plan as just another system to enable suburban road funding. It’s amazing to me that most of the people who complain about spending and taxes are suburbanites, as if they are the true investors for Indianapolis? If their 6 lane road to home doesn’t get paved every 2 years…well, “it must be them city dwellers holding em back.” I guess I’m still confused about this mindset. I think these people tend to blame cities for all of their problems when they can’t find their way home via strip malls, curved streets, isolated green spaces and traffic jams. You all subscribed to this. Deal with it!

  • We need to change our slogan from “Crossroads of America” to “Cross-modes of America”

  • So why can a suburbanite attack cities in general and it seems totally appropriate? I really wasn’t yelling when I wrote the last comment. It’s just how I personally feel about the associated culture. Sorry for the unintended ‘tone’. I have no disrespect for anybody who chooses to live in the suburbs, which offer something cities can’t and always will. I just don’t understand why a certain group of people are not held accountable for taxes that take care of their territory. I agree…policy is messed up. But who or what can be done to actually help change this policy?

    • That post by J Doe was also out of line. We gave him another chance, and Graeme deleted his most offensive comment. This is rare for us, we generally don’t want to reign in the comments too often, because the feedback has been very valuable.

  • It’s a chicken and egg sort of thing. Having transit doesn’t mean you’ll automatically have transit-oriented or pedestrial-scale development.

  • Randy, you’re right. That’s why we should put transit (especially rail) in the neighborhoods that were originally built around it: most of Center Township, plus the Meridian Kessler, Broad Ripple, and Irvington neighborhoods.
    Those neighborhoods are already pedestrian-scaled and many have remnant transit-oriented nodes (see: College Ave., Illinois St., Washington St.).

  • College, Illinois and Washington seem to make sense for priority number 1, where existing features already exist: Government Center/IUPUI to Butler University and Meridian Kessler; Irvington to Downtown to Airport; Broad Ripple to Downtown to Fountain Square. This LRT is the only connection to really build up all of the residential areas in between the major destinations. These 3 lines would complement the expanded bus service and spur economic growth naturally. I can’t wait until these three lines are implemented.

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